This is part two in a memoir that began in this post here.
I oddly wanted this.
I don’t know when this experience changed for me, but the idea of coming in second or third or fourth to another grad student (or worse an undergrad) in auditions felt beneath me. I was Scott freaking Southard and I wanted to be the super grad student! I wanted to be the one that professors would talk about after graduation. A living benchmark for the program. Yeah, I wanted future conversations in the office around history to be like: “Was that before or after Scott was a student here?”
Preparing for the auditions with that lousy script was the equivalent of eating a meal you hated, but promising yourself you were going to eat every drop and love it. Yeah, you were going to smile through the awful meal. Again and again. And I did. I memorized every bit I could of the audition script, bit my tongue as I acted it out in the mirror.
And when the day of the audition came about, I felt ready. Some of my friends thought I was a little crazy for caring so much and maybe I was. Who knows? My brother was an actor when I was growing up, so maybe a part of me wanted to prove it was no big deal and I could do it too. Yeah, I admit there might have been other issues at play in my head. I honestly admit it.
I thought I did great but when the roles were handed out I was not Ponitus Pilate, I was given the second biggest role, that of Caiaphas. I was told in confidence by the theater professor that he only gave the other student Pilate since he had actual acting experience in his past. I could live with that answer! It’s like I was the secret best (but still the best don’t forget).
And that evening I was almost gleeful as I started to highlight the script… until I realized what I was going to be doing and saying.
Truthfully, I don’t think the professors saw the play as anti-Semitic (but it was).
I’m pretty sure if I had brought it up to them their answer/excuse might have been the same as mine if I was in their shoes; which is that it is being performed and shared as an historical entry (even though it is a bad adaptation and translation, but that is beside the point). In other words, this is what the author wrote hundreds of years ago, we are just acting it out. Don’t blame us!
Fine, that argument does work to a certain extent. But it doesn’t change the fact that the play hit all of the traits you get in anti-Semitism. The play could have been a checklist! Power, greed, swindling, trickery, etc., it was all there. Me and the other Jewish characters even got to rub our hands happily when our plans were going right and taunt Jesus, not just when he is carrying the cross, but also when he is hanging on it.
See, this was one of those versions of the Easter story where Pilate is almost innocent, a tragic character tricked by the Jewish members of the community. “Jesus was one of theirs, why wouldn’t they know what best to do with him?” Pilate would think, and then feel guilty at the end, wondering why he allowed himself to be tricked into killing a good man. Oh wait… that is why, the Jewish people did it with their sneaky Jewish ways. Seriously, it could only have been worse if they asked me to read a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as well. (Okay, that might be over the top, but it felt that way sometimes.)
Yeah, you get it- this made me feel really uncomfortable. And a class was making me do this! I was doing this for a grade.
This was the second time I considered talking about the script with the professor (the literature professor, not the theater professor who adapted it). But at the next class, when we began our readings, he happily told the class that he would be acting as the Chorus, which introduces the play. The smile on his face showed me that my concerns wouldn’t be heard.
So my Southard logic began to play out like this:
- This is being done as a class and will be performed during the middle of the day on campus. This is not for a big audience. Chances are no one will see it.
- It is an historical piece. To have changed the original script or intention that much would have been about as great a disservice to the author as the script we were using. (Of course, an argument could have been made that a major university shouldn’t be doing religious theater in the first place, but that is beside the point, right?)
- Think of your grade, man!
I thought of my grade, but there were definitely some moments when I could not look myself in the mirror.
“You didn’t write the script, remember you didn’t write it…. No, I just have to say it in public and pretend to own it, that is all.”
One of the reasons I never considered going into acting is my brain. This may sound weird to say, but I always have multiple things going on in it. Right now as I write this post, I am also working on a book outline and debating what next to do to promote the books that I have out now (convince readers like you to buy them, read them). Which means, now and then between my typing a random thought will sneak in related to to those other topics, which will get a bit of focus and then move aside. And so on. It is like in one of those scenes in a movie where an important executive is walking down a hallway surrounded by assistants giving him updates on numerous things. You see, I am always that executive and the hallway has no end. It is a nonstop walk until nighttime and then the walk starts again the next day. And, as I see it, an actor needs to be fully in a moment. Goodbye mental assistants!
I am never fully in a moment!
Even during the big moments in my life, I can tell you what other thoughts were running in my head while they were going on. So my biggest struggle was not memorizing the awful and highly questionable dialogue, it was pretending to look like I was listening and caring about what everyone else was doing around me. So even though I got a good role in this first outing as an actor, my feeling is that this would be a swansong for me. It just didn’t feel natural to how I was wired.
The nice bit though that came out of the rehearsals is that me and some of the other grad students became closer. I remember going swing dancing with one of the students, and another would always stop by my room to watch movies and complain about classes. She actually might have been the smartest of all of us; she worked it so she played a messenger with one line. So basically she was coasting through the experience. I could have almost kicked the old me who was worried about auditions!
I was beginning to find the humor around the situation, so my opinion was changing again. This was a joke with an A at the end. Laugh along. And to prove that point it was about then that I got to see my costume.
See, one of the “ringer” students was a worker at a Renaissance festival in the state. That was her thing, every year she would spend her summer serving drinks as a bar wench, laughing loudly with a bad British accent. And she was able to get her hands on some of the costumes for the show. While Pilate (and his wife) were going to be dressed like typical Romans (hello bedsheets), the rest of us were medieval. And for me, I was nobility, which meant I had fur, a chain around my neck and a hat… oh, and tights. They had tights back then, right? That is historically accurate, right?
When I put on the costume, it was obvious it was made for a heavier person than me. I was swimming in the shirt. I considered adding a pillow to it, but decided not to. It would have been too weird. Well, even more weird.
As I looked at myself in the mirror for the first time, I realized then what I would do for a good grade. Yup, it was time to laugh manically and long.
“Laugh, monkey boy in tights, laugh.”
On the day of the show, I woke up to a wonderfully beautiful thunderstorm out my window. Rain! I almost danced from my dorm room down to the cafeteria. Rain! I ate a big breakfast in celebration, looking forward to the call or e-mail I would soon be getting from one of the professors cancelling the show. Look, lightning! I almost considered running outside and doing my best Gene Kelly. Gene Kelly would have loved this storm.
I got the blessed call once I got back to my room. “Oh, I saw the rain, so very, very disappointed. Does that mean the show is cancelled? I hope not,” I said, putting my new acting skills to work.
The show was not cancelled, instead the venue was moved. We were going to be performing at a church now.
“Wait,” I interrupted, wanting to make sure I heard this right, “I’m going to be condemning Christ to the cross and mocking him in an actual church?”
“Yes,” the professor happily said and hung up.
I am not religious. I was raised Catholic but I abandoned that while as a teenager. I like to say I am agnostic on a good day. But it still doesn’t mean that I felt it was okay to act like that in a church or say things like that. This definitely felt worse than taking the Lord’s name in vain. (I still kept some of my Catholic guilt, thank you very much.) And I did hear some gasps at some points from the audience.
Yup, actual gasps.
And that guilt grew in me as we performed that play twice in that church. To make the situation even worse, since it was in a church and it was a weekend, the numbers were better than they should have been. It was obvious that it must have been announced to some of the congregation, because this audience was not students, but actual believers. Churchgoers.
So…. I was a college grad student in English at a major university… performing a religious play for a class… in a church… to a congregation… and I was the bad guy. This was my A in Medieval Literature.
Nothing about this made me feel clean. The only comfort I could take in it is how few other people from the department were there. I didn’t even see the head of the department in attendance at either show. If he was there, he didn’t bother to say anything to us. Didn’t he want to congratulate us on earning that grade?
What else do I remember about the performance? After the show, when I bowed or mingled, none of the audience would make eye contact with me. Not a single one.
I would have thrown my costume away at the end of the last show if I was given the chance. (But no, some poor sucker at the festival would have to wear it over the summer and try to comically collect taxes in it.) Instead, I went with the rest of the cast to a party and got a little sick on Goldschläger. I remember that fact vividly because I kept thinking as it was happening:
“I’m vomiting gold. Look at me, I’m vomiting gold!”
In the next semester I would drop out of Michigan State, head out to the University of Southern California and get an MFA instead in Creative Writing. It felt like a better match for me, and I was creating the shit I was being forced to work on. So I only had myself to blame then.
But here is the thing… a few years later I would try to return to Michigan State to complete my MA. My wife and I were living in Lansing because of her new job and the idea of having two Master’s degrees sounded pretty cool. So I met with the head of the department (it was not the same one who was there when I was). We reviewed my past records, he saw how close I was to completing the degree. He even saw my grade in Medieval Literature.
“You got an A in Medieval Literature?”
“Yes,” is all I said in response.
He whistled impressed and continued on in his review.
It was decided later (which I would learn in an e-mail) that I would once again be happily accepted as a student, but I would have to start again from day one. In other words, my past with MSU was null and void. That made me bitter and I decided not to reenroll.
So two years of grad school ended up as a collection of stories for me and a certain embarrassing picture of me on the internet… which it turns out is not quite gone!
After I wrote the first part of this post, one of my friends e-mailed me a copy of the picture from the play. It turns out he had saved it on his computer because he thought it was funny. He is right, it is funny.
But my legs do look awesome.
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My Problem with Doors
by Scott D. Southard
Giveaway ends October 28, 2014.
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The photograph really does put a nice little ribbon around the whole story, doesn’t it? (>^-‘)>
You and your adventures…!